Staff Sergeant Delbert O. Jennings was an Army NCO whose bravery during a pitched battle at LZ (Landing Zone) Bird in South Vietnam on December 27, 1966, would result in him being awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jennings was born in Silver City, New Mexico in July of 1936. He joined the Army in San Francisco in 1956. Ten years later, Jennings was a Staff Sergeant in Company C, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division. His unit was assigned to LZ Bird, a forward artillery base that provided fire support for the Cavalry in the Kim Son Valley.
The base was small, only about 250 meters long and 80 meters wide, and was bordered by the Kim Son River. Jennings was part of an undermanned weapons platoon, with only 22 troops, some of whom were green replacements. They were supposed to defend the northern sector of the perimeter.
The firebase had a dozen 155mm howitzers on the northern perimeter and 105mm howitzers along the southern edge. Along with the weapons platoon were grunts from C Co., 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Regt., 1st Air Cav Division. The total American force consisted of less than 200 soldiers.
Despite both sides declaring a truce on Christmas 1966, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was moving to eliminate the base and those troops in it. Just after midnight on December 27, two battalions of the NVA’s 22nd Regiment were infiltrating close to the base’s wire. They were well-trained, motivated, and backed by local Viet Cong (VC) insurgents. They totaled over 1,000 troops.
Shortly after 1 a.m., the NVA began hitting LZ Bird with concentrated mortar, 57mm recoilless rifle, and heavy machinegun fire. There were already about 40-50 NVA troops breaching the base’s perimeter.
Because of prior planning, Jennings had placed stacks of grenade boxes in the bunkers in case of attack. As a pair of M-60 machineguns raked the attacking NVA, Jenning and SSG Colmar Johnson were organizing the defense. Jennings had the troops remove the grenades from the boxes. He then peppered the attacking NVA troops with a constant barrage of grenades. After daylight, they found a dozen NVA bodies in front of their positions.
However, the NVA troops continued to push forward and are soon behind the Americans as their sappers try to blow the bunkers but many of their explosives didn’t detonate. Jennings killed three sappers who were attempting to destroy one of the 155mm howitzers. Jennings then ran through the heavy fire to warn the troops that the NVA were then behind them.
Jennings then directed the air landing of reinforcements inside the perimeter by throwing white phosphorous, which illuminated him further to enemy fire.
SP4 Charles Tournage, the medic was running all over the base, stark naked as he’d been sleeping when the battle began and he had no time to get dressed. He ran to find more medical supplies when he crossed paths with an NVA soldier. In historian S.L.A. Marshall’s book, The Christmastide Battle Marshall wrote, “As the Viet swerved off on an oblique, Tournage had time to get off one M-79 round that, armed in just the right split-second, hit the target in the middle of the back and tore the North Vietnamese apart.”
As the American survivors were gathered in a tiny portion of the southern perimeter, the men were convinced that they’d be overrun and killed. But then the artillerymen, who had been prepared for such an eventuality, sprang into action. They fired off green flares which were to be fired only if the camp was being overrun. It was a signal for all surviving Americans in the camp to drop and take cover.
That’s when the artillerymen depressed the 105mm howitzer in the perimeter and fired off a beehive round that launched 8,500 flechettes (small metal darts) into the swarm of NVA assault teams. The flechettes ripped bodies apart and the Americans could hear the NVA screaming. The gun fired again. And the assault was stopped cold.
The Americans began taking back the overrun gun pits one at a time. Meanwhile, UH-1 Huey gunships raked the NVA with rockets while armed CH-47 Chinooks hit them with machinegun fire.
Jennings next gathered up some volunteers and raced back into an area where the NVA overran the defenders and where eight men were wounded. He recovered them all.
The entire battle lasted just one hour. The Americans lost 28 men KIA, and 77 wounded on LZ Bird. But they killed 266 NVA soldiers during the pitched fighting.
Jennings’s Medal of Honor citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Part of Company C was defending an artillery position when attacked by a North Vietnamese Army regiment supported by mortar, recoilless-rifle, and machine gunfire. At the outset, S/Sgt. Jennings sprang to his bunker, astride the main attack route, and slowed the on-coming enemy wave with highly effective machine gunfire. Despite a tenacious defense in which he killed at least 12 of the enemy, his squad was forced to the rear. After covering the withdrawal of the squad, he rejoined his men, destroyed an enemy demolition crew about to blow up a nearby howitzer, and killed 3 enemy soldiers at his initial bunker position. Ordering his men back into a secondary position, he again covered their withdrawal, killing 1 enemy with the butt of his weapon. Observing that some of the defenders were unaware of an enemy force in their rear, he raced through a fire-swept area to warn the men, turn their fire on the enemy, and lead them into the secondary perimeter. Assisting in the defense of the new position, he aided the air-landing of reinforcements by throwing white phosphorus grenades on the landing zone despite dangerously silhouetting himself with the light. After helping to repulse the final enemy assaults, he led a group of volunteers well beyond friendly lines to an area where 8 seriously wounded men lay. Braving enemy sniper fire and ignoring the presence of booby traps in the area, they recovered the 8 men who would have probably perished without early medical treatment. S/Sgt. Jenning’s extraordinary heroism and inspirational leadership saved the lives of many of his comrades and contributed greatly to the defeat of a superior enemy force. His actions stand with the highest traditions of the military profession and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.”
Jennings was decorated with the Medal of Honor by President Johnson. He retired from the Army in 1985 as the Command Sergeant Major (CSM) of the 1st Cavalry Division. Jennings died in 2003 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.